Well, since Reformation Sunday is approaching, time to engage in some good ‘ole Catholic-Protestant polemics. The following was a response I made on a blog debating the issue of what does it mean to be part of a “visible church”, my first comment can be found here.
If this is not enough for you, whether out of curiousity, skepticism or obstinancy; then, by all means go to the ecumenical councils, papal bulls and encyclicals, writings of the church fathers and doctors, etc. But these do not contradict. At least the teachings of the popes and ecumenical councils do not contradict each other. Cannot. Will not.
Well, you see herein lies the problem. They do contradict. It is well-known that St Thomas Aquinas and St Bernard of Clairvaux denied the immaculate conception, and ironically Aquinas himself seems to have taught a form of sola scriptura as you can see here:
Nevertheless, sacred doctrine makes use of these authorities as extrinsic and probable arguments; but properly uses the authority of the canonical Scriptures as an incontrovertible proof, and the authority of the doctors of the Church as one that may properly be used, yet merely as probable. For our faith rests upon the revelation made to the apostles and prophets who wrote the canonical books, and not on the revelations (if any such there are) made to other doctors. Hence Augustine says (Epis. ad Hieron. xix, 1): “Only those books of Scripture which are called canonical have I learned to hold in such honor as to believe their authors have not erred in any way in writing them. But other authors I so read as not to deem everything in their works to be true, merely on account of their having so thought and written, whatever may have been their holiness and learning.”
-Summa Theologia, Part 1, Question 1, Article 8
And I seriously doubt many conservative catholics today would embrace papal bulls such as Unam Sanctum or Ad Extirpanda which authorises the use of torture wholeheartedly, etc. Furthermore the “ecumenicity” of a council is a retroactive reading after the fact and there aren’t any empirical makers as to what makes a council “ecumenical”, many councils have been revoked and condemned by subsequent councils, etc, and only a form of Newmansque history written by the victors sort of narrative can justify the choice of one council over another as the Eastern Orthodox theologian, Georges Florovsky puts it well,
Charismatic tradition is truly universal; in its fulness it embraces every kind of semper and ubique and unites all. But empirically it may not be accepted by all. At any rate we are not to prove the truth of Christianity by means of “universal consent,” per consensum omnium. In general, no consensus can prove truth. This would be a case of acute psychologism, and in theology there is even less place for it than in philosophy. On the contrary, truth is the measure by which we can evaluate the worth of “general opinion.” Catholic experience can be expressed even by the few, even by single confessors of faith; and this is quite sufficient. Strictly speaking, to be able to recognize and express catholic truth we need no ecumenical, universal assembly and vote; we even need no “Ecumenical Council.” The sacred dignity of the Council lies not in the number of members representing their Churches. A large “general” council may prove itself to be a “council of robbers” (latrocinium), or even of apostates. And the ecclesia sparsa often convicts it of its nullity by silent opposition. Numerus episcoporum does not solve the question. The historical and practical methods of recognizing sacred and catholic tradition can be many; that of assembling Ecumenical Councils is but one of them, and not the only one. This does not mean that it is unnecessary to convoke councils and conferences. But it may so happen that during the council the truth will be expressed by the minority. And what is still more important, the truth may be revealed even without a council. The opinions of the Fathers and of the ecumenical Doctors of the Church frequently have greater spiritual value and finality than the definitions of certain councils. And these opinions do not need to be verified and accepted by “universal consent.” On the contrary, it is they themselves who are the criterion and they who can prove. It is of this that the Church testifies in silent receptio. Decisive value resides in inner catholicity, not in empirical universality.
-The Catholicity of the Church
It seems therefore in response to the conflicts of empirical facts the Catholic has two options:
(1) The first recourse is always to say that all these writings do not “really” mean to say that and have to be “interpreted rightly” and can be harmonised with the present teachings of the Roman Church. Although it is questionable whether they can all be so reconciled (I think most Catholics do concede that St Thomas Aquinas did deny the immaculate conception), but this recourse introduces an even greater problem: The threat of relativism and the possibility of an infinite regress of interpretations. Ecclesiastical documents are meant to be authoritative interpretations of the faith and the Bible, and yet now they lack clarity of meaning and seem to be in need of interpretation themselves, leading us to a need to interpret the interpreters and so on and so forth. The regress contradicts one of the fundamental features of “authoritative” reading, certainty and clarity. But if every ecclesiastical pronouncement themselves are subjected to “authoritative interpretation”, it would collapse into an infinite self-referential loop. (A problem all the more stark given the context of our present discussion, the problem of needing to “interpret” the words of Pope Francis.)
It is interesting to note in this respect that in a discussion I had on the “sinfulness” of masturbation, a Roman friend of mine pointed out the necessity of a Magisterial authority to ground this teaching. But I pointed out that there have been many roman priests who have used the following clause in the CCC,
To form an equitable judgment about the subjects’ moral responsibility and to guide pastoral action, one must take into account the affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen, if not even reduce to a minimum, moral culpability.
to argue that masturbation is therefore permitted in certain contexts where moral culpability diminishes to a vanishing point. Remember, this is the church and book whereby “There is no salvation outside the Church” does not literally and directly mean that but is hedged by a thousand qualifications and clauses and thereby heavily laden with “interpretations” which goes beyond the literal plain sense of the words.
As such, arguments over interpretations of interpreters rarely interest me and whenever a theological discussion turns into an argument over what some document or theologian “really meant”, I would more often than not tune out of the debate. Such arguments are first and foremost, incredibly tedious and more often than not an exercise in logomarchy and more importantly, even if one manages to prove one’s interpretation of some ecclesiastical document or father, the Catholic is always given the option of saying, well, okay, so he does contradict Catholic teaching, but he’s not here exercising his magisterial teaching authority or his infallibility, etc, but was merely expressing his own opinion and not an official pronouncement, and all that time wasted in arguing over interpretations goes down the drain.
(2) Which brings me to my second option for the Catholic confronted with a “contradictory” ecclesiastical document. This option is the more frequently employed one in that Catholics would often say that some decree, writing or teaching is not “infallible” or are not exercises of the teaching magisterium, etc. But the problem with this of course is that the question then collapses into the question of which writings are infallible and can be considered authoritative teachings of the infallible Magisterium and “one, eternal, holy and true” and not merely exercises of temporal ecclesiastical authority? And it is by no means certain or obvious as to which writings can be considered a part of the infallible magisterium, etc.
In this there is an interesting discussion within Roman Catholicism regarding the scope of papal infallibility and the problem which comes to determining the extent of this which this Anglican theologian captures very well,
…as modern debates about papal authority make clear, the appeal to infallibility does not provide the kind of epistemic certainty that is needed here. There are both maximalist and minimalist interpretations of papal infallibility. Despite Newman’s claim that one is required to believe “whateveran Apostle said,” the official teaching about the magisterium is that the pope is infallible only when he speaks ex cathedra. Popes can and do make moral and theological errors. A doctrine of infallibility is helpful only in those instances when we can be sure the pope or magisterium is not making such an error.
Minimalist defenders of papal infallibility emphasize that there are only a handful of times when the magisterium has spoken infallibly, namely, the definition of papal infallibility itself, and the Marian dogmas of the immaculate conception and the assumption. Maximalist defenders engage in what has been called“creeping infallibility,” the tendency to presume that any statements of the magisterium must be presumed at face value to be infallible until subsequent statements to the contrary indicate the lack of infallibility. Roman Catholic apologists often take either one stance or the other, depending on whether they are trying to persuade their audience that infallibility is not really a burden (minimalist), or, to the contrary, emphasizing infallibility’s epistemic value in providing certainty (maximalist).
That infallibility proves to be of little epistemic help can be seen in the conflict over artificial contraception that has been raging in the Roman church ever since Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae on artificial contraception. Dissidents from the doctrine frequently claim that it has not been defined infallibly. Defenders claim that while it has not been so defined, it nonetheless meets all the criteria of infallibility, and must be accepted as such.
However, until it is so defined, whether one decides that it does or does not meet the criteria means that one must exercise one’s private judgment in determining whether it has been so defined. An interesting case in point is the correspondence between former Catholic University of America Professor Charles Curran and then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict) during the process through which Curran was eventually deprived of his status of being a Catholic theologian on the grounds of his challenging Humanae Vitae. (The documentation can be found in Curran’s Faithful Dissent, (Sheed & Ward, 1986).) Throughout the correspondence, Curran repeatedly raised a single issue, whether or not it was permissible for faithful Catholics to dissent from non-infallible statements of the magisterium. Repeatedly, Curran insisted that he adhered to the doctrine of infallibility, but that Humanae Vitae was not infallible. He repeatedly asked clarification from his prosecutors as to whether Humanae Vitae was infallible, and said that such a clarification would lead him to submit. Curran’s opponents simply refused to answer his question. Certainly if the maximalists are correct, it would have been easy to do so, since, as maximalists argue, it meets the criteria of infallibility. Instead, Curran was repeatedly asked simply to renounce his teachings because he had disagreed with the magisterium. In the end, Curran had to be left wondering whether he was disciplined because he disagreed with an infallible teaching of the magisterium, or, instead, whether he was disciplined simply because he challenged a statement of the magisterium, which might have been infallible, but might not have been. A doctrine of infallibility which might or might not apply in specific instances provides no more epistemic assurance than what Newman calls “private judgment.” (For an argument along the same lines, see Mark E. Powell, “Canonical Theism and the Challenge of Epistemic Certainty: Papal Infallibility as a Case Study,” Canonical Theism, 195-209.)
Thus, eventually, the determination as to which documents are part of the “infallible” teaching magisterium and which ones are not comes down to a question of interpretation whereby one has to exercise his own judgement in this regard…
If I may end off with a quote from Cardinal Manning, a contemporary of Cardinal Newman, he alone, out of most Roman theologians, seem to realise that the complexities of church history and writings cannot by itself bear the weight of the claims of the Roman Church, and in that light, he utterly denounces any attempt to ground the Roman faith upon history, antiquity or the past. Rather, the Roman faith is grounded simply upon the present voice of the living Church, whose announcement at each present moment exhaustively enunciates the entirety of the Roman faith regardless of what the church has written or said in the past, as he puts it so eloquently and sharply here:
The other objection I shall touch but briefly. It is often said that Catholics are arbitrary and positive even to provocation in perpetually affirming the indivisible unity and infallibility of the Church, the primacy of the Holy See, and the like, without regard to the difficulties of history, the facts of antiquity, and the divisions of Christendom. It is implied by this that these truths are not borne out by history and fact: that they are even irreconcilable with it: that they are no more than theories, pious opinions, assumptions, and therefore visionary and false.
We very frankly accept the issue. No Catholic would first take what our objectors call history, fact, antiquity and the like, and from them deduce his faith ; and for this reason, the faith was revealed and taught before history, fact or antiquity existed. These things are but the basis of his faith, nor is the examination of them his method of theological proof. The Church, which teaches him now by its perpetual living voice, taught the same faith before as yet the Church had a history or an antiquity. The rule and basis of faith to those who lived before either the history or antiquity of which we hear so much existed, is the rule and basis of our faith now.
But perhaps it may be asked: If you reject history and antiquity, how can you know what was revealed before, as you say, history and antiquity existed ? ‘I answer : The enunciation of the faith by the living Church of this hour, is the maximum, of evidence, both natural and supernatural, as to the fact and the contents of the original revelation. I know what are revealed there not by retrospect, but by listening.
-The Temporal Mission of the Holy Ghost
Indeed if in the words of Cardinal Newman, to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant, then Cardinal Manning clearly believes that to be deeper in history is to cease to be Roman Catholic.
For more on the uselessness of the magisterium with regards to infallibility, you can see here.